Rescue teams in the Mediterranean Sea are giving up hope of finding more than 28 survivors from a vessel that was carrying 850 migrants, as the captain of the ship and one of his crew members are charged by Italian authorities with reckless homicide and engaging in human smuggling activities.
The captain, Mohammed Ali Malek, is Tunisian, while crew member Mahmud Bikhit is Syrian. They were detained while on board the rescue boat that fished them out of the Mediterranean, along with a horribly small number of the people they were carrying. It has been widely reported that the 65-foot trawler capsized due to panicked passengers rushing around on deck, but the captain is now charged with making steering mistakes that caused his boat to collide with the Portuguese merchant ship that was trying to assist them. According to a BBC report, the refugees rushed to one side of the trawler and caused it to capsize after the collision.
“They left on Saturday morning around eight o’clock in the morning from Tripoli, and they started to have problems, and they were approached by merchant vessels during the night around 10 o’clock,” U.N. refugee commissioner Carlotta Sami said of the doomed voyage. “The little boat lost its balance, and people started to move around. Those that were down wanted to come up and vice-versa, and many people fell into the water, and then the boat capsized.”
The New York Times adds the testimony of a survivor that “many of the victims of the shipwreck had been locked by smugglers in a hold on the lower deck.”
As for the human-trafficking charges, the European Union clearly wants to send a message to the smuggling community, in hopes of slowing the tidal wave of refugees pouring through Libya. The BBC mentions that the Syrian crew of another refugee ship that ran aground on Monday will also face charges for illegally transporting migrants to Greece.
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is quoted in the New York Times comparing the migrant-smuggling trade to slavery. The European Council is scheduled to hold a summit meeting on the refugee crisis this Thursday, with a crackdown against smugglers among the measures to be discussed. Renzi and his Maltese counterpart, Joseph Muscat, have actually called for “nonmilitary intervention against smugglers in Libya,” although it is not clear how their plan would be different from a “military” intervention, if it is to have any effect on the situation.
The UK Guardian spoke with a “smuggling kingpin” who used the alias “Hajj,” which is the term for the traditional Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, and he was openly contemptuous of the crackdown threat: “What are they going to do, put two frigates here? Two warships? In Libyan waters? That’s an invasion.”
“They’re just lying,” Hajj said of the European Union. “They’re liars. And it’s not the first time. Last year the same thing happened when these tragedies occurred. Human rights people came out and started talking, and politicians met and said they’d take action. But nothing happened. It’ll be the same thing.”
His alternative suggestion was providing financial “support” to the smugglers, particularly the Amazigh minority in Libya, although the boat captained by Mohammed Ali Malek did not originate from an Amazigh port.
Hajj did have some solid advice for the Italians, suggesting they destroy captured smuggling vessels instead of leaving them adrift to be recovered and reused. The Guardian notes “there are instances where the same boat has been used four times in four separate migrant missions.”
Hajj also suggested the EU should “step up attempts to end the civil war in Libya, which would in turn make the country a destination for migrants, rather than a place of transit to Europe,” as the Guardian puts it.